Quranic Reflection No. 435. Āyat 20:44 – Etiquette of speech

فَقُولا لَهُ قَوْلاً لَيِّناً لَعَلَّهُ يَتَذَكَّرُ أَوْ يَخْشى
Fa qulā lahu qawlan layyinan la‘allahu yatadhakaru aw yakhshā
Speak to him in a soft manner; maybe he will take admonition or fear.
‏(Sūrat Taha, No. 20, Āyat 44)

Throughout the course of history, we gain valuable lessons from our Prophets and Imams. This verse was revealed after Allah (swt) informed Prophet Mūsā (a) that he had been appointed for His revelation and had been chosen to guide the people. Prophet Mūsā (a) along with his brother Prophet Hārūn (a) was asked to go speak to Fir‘awn in the most kind and gentle manner so they might influence him positively.

According to the tafsīr of this verse, the soft and gentle approach of Prophet Mūsā (a) towards Fir‘awn could result in two apparent possibilities. He could take admonition and genuinely accept and believe in the message of Prophet Mūsā (a) or he could at the least fear the punishment of his actions, and the loss of his kingdom and power, and surrender. This verse uses the word la‘allā, which alludes to a third possibility, and that is, he could be indifferent and simply continue in his ways.

The overlaying message in the Quran when it comes to communicating with others, specifically when enjoining towards good and forbidding evil, is to do it in a manner which is polite and attractive, regardless of the outcome. It is through love and kindness that people are attracted towards the truth or made to fear the consequences of their wrongdoings. This was also the methodology of all our Prophets and Imams in their dealings with others when teaching the message of God.

Even though we learn to talk at a very young age, it takes us a lifetime to learn how to speak. There is always scope for improvement. When we speak, what we say is just as important as our tone, voice and body language i.e. how we say it! The following are some important points to remember.

1. Listen well – Good communication involves listening first with an open mind and then responding accordingly. Listening actively allows for a mutual respect to form between both parties. The Prophet (s) was a very good listener. He would pay attention to people who came to him and listen to what they had to say. His enemies accused him of listening too much to others – Among them are those who torment the Prophet, and say, ‘He is an ear.’ Say, ‘An ear that is good for you. He has faith in Allah and trusts the faithful and is a mercy for those of you who have faith.’ (Q 9:61)
2. Say it Right – Never underestimate the power of speech. World famous speeches that changed hearts would not have been as affective if the speakers had not mastered what they had to say, how to say it, and with what passion to induce the words to convey the message. The Quran says: Speak to them respectful words (Q 17:23).
3. Manage Pace – Just as a speeding car in our view is unclear and blurred so are words that spoken too fast. Speaking too fast also shows a lack of self-confidence and control. Even speaking too slowly will lose the listener.
4. Pay Attention to the Tone of Voice – Often we focus on what we need to say and
overlook the how we say it. Apart from being too loud, we can come off as being harsh
or condescending and in fact hurt the listener.
5. Speak with more than just your mouth – We need to make use of all our senses and
body to communicate for our speech to be highly effective. Body posture, eye contact,
gestures and facial expressions make a world of difference to the message being
conveyed. Imam Ali (a) says: Whenever a person conceals a thing in his heart it manifests itself through unintentional words from his tongue and the expressions of his face (Nahjul Balāgha, H. 26).

In a beautiful hadith the Holy Prophet (s) says: One who enjoins good should do so using good means (Kanz al-‘Ummāl, H. 5523). Imam Husayn (a) is a true reflection of this hadith. He spoke to the people throughout his journey to Karbala. He also tried to guide the people who stood against him in Karbala. As we enter the months of ‘azā (mourning), pray for the ability to be gentle in dealing with others.

Remember this verse and use it as inspiration to remain kind and calm in even the most stressful of situations. It was an approach that made the Prophets and Imams successful.

Source: Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārīm Shirāzī, Al-Amthal fí Tafsír Kitáb Alláh al-Munzal